The Unlikely Rescue of Yosemite's Camp 4

For decades, Camp 4 was the base camp for climbers scaling the vertical walls of Yosemite. That’s why the legendary Tom Frost fought to have it declared a historic site when its demise was imminent.

Yosemite's historic Camp 4 serves as a base for mountain climbers from all over the globe.
Yosemite’s historic Camp 4 was slated to become employee dorms and tourist lodging—until a veteran mountain climber and curious attorney stepped in.

The way my father tells it, the story begins with a wiry and white-haired man named Tom Frost hitting a painful crossroads in his early 60s—heart attack, divorce. Like a lot of middle-aged people in hard times, Frost decided to save himself by returning to youthful sources of strength and happiness. Like few people of any age, however, Frost had been a key player during the golden age of Yosemite climbing, a near-mythic time in the 1950s and ’60s when Frost and other young men, including Royal Robbins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, spent months at a time in a scruffy Yosemite campground called Camp 4. Climbing all day and talking late into the night, they pioneered new hardware and techniques and made dramatic first ascents of extremely difficult climbs on great walls like El Capitan.

By the time Frost hit his rough patch, in 1997, he hadn’t been climbing in over 30 years. He was living in Colorado, playing a significant role in his local Mormon church, and running a photographic lighting company that he’d cofounded, called Chimera Lighting. But Frost had an adult son named Ryan who was a good climber, so Frost bought a Porsche 911—call it a midlife crisis if you want, but don’t judge until you’ve heard the whole tale. Frost drove that Porsche to an outdoor store, spent several thousand dollars acquiring all the equipment necessary for multiday climbs of El Cap, and then raced west with his son—across the Rocky Mountains and the desert vastness of the Great Basin and over the California state line into the Sierra Nevada.

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Yosemite Valley was a lush green that summer, thanks to massive snowfall the previous winter and subsequent flooding. As Frost drove around the gentle curves of the Yosemite Valley loop road, below huge evergreens and infinitely bigger granite cliffs, he saw waterfalls thundering, wildflowers blooming, and the big Merced River roaring high. When Frost found Camp 4, scene of his life’s happiest moments and closest friendships, and launching pad for his wildest adventures, he discovered with annoyance that the National Park Service had renamed the place Sunnyside Campground—a peculiar snub, given the significance of Camp 4 to international climbing culture. Still, Frost was delighted to find the dusty parking lot as crowded as ever, filled with battered old vans and pickups, the classic rigs of serious climbers.

When Frost pitched a tent in the dirt, cheek by jowl with other climbers, he was happy to see fit men and women from all over the world chattering in more languages than he could count about adventures they’d just had or hoped to have, many on routes that Frost himself had helped to establish.

Frost found exactly what he was looking for on that trip with Ryan.

Tom Frost during his second ascent of the Nose, a climbing route up Yosemite’s El Capitan, in June 1997.
Tom Frost during his second ascent of the Nose, a climbing route up Yosemite’s El Capitan, in June 1997.

They carried their gear to the base of El Cap and spent four days climbing the iconic route known as the Nose—3,000 vertical feet of hard, pale granite. They nearly froze to death in a cold rainstorm, but Frost reached the top profoundly grateful that this elysian field of his youth was still here: Yosemite, El Cap, Camp 4.

Frost also found something he wasn’t looking for. Strolling through the camp one day in the midafternoon heat, he noticed a pale piece of cut wood poking up from the ground with a red nylon ribbon stapled to the top. Frost knew a survey stake when he saw one, so he looked around and noticed others cutting right across the campground.

Curious, Frost asked around. It was worse than he’d feared. The massive flooding earlier that year had wiped out 100 percent of employee housing and damaged 60 percent of tourist housing. The Park Service, he learned, planned to build four new dormitories, each three stories tall, plus 12 fourplex hotel annexes with room for 192 guests in and around Camp 4, erasing all that climbing history from the map. Frost asked for an audience with the park superintendent but was denied. He spoke to rangers but learned nothing of any use. Finally, Frost heard a voice in his head say, Well, you can sue the National Park Service if you want. You know that, don’t you? He responded to this voice by saying, I can? Frost then heard that same internal voice say, And you can work to get Camp 4 listed on the National Register if you want. You know that, don’t you?

His first move was to write up an application to the National Register of Historic Places and send it off to Washington. Frost also spent $400 on pay phone calls trying to get a lawyer involved. Somebody put him in touch with my father, Richard Duane. I know my father well enough to know that he was overjoyed to get a phone call from the great Tom Frost. When Frost explained that Camp 4 was slated for destruction and that he needed a lawyer to sue the National Park Service and help get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Dad must have felt as if the gods were offering him a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Still, it doesn’t surprise me that Dad told Frost that he didn’t know anything about the relevant law, that he would love to help but couldn’t claim to know what he was doing.

Frost said, “Ever done something you didn’t know how to do before you started?”

Dad thought, Hmm, I think I’m going to like this, and conceded that he had.

“Then you’re my lawyer,” Frost replied.

Yosemite’s historic Camp 4, the legacy of climber Tom Frost.
Yosemite’s historic Camp 4, the legacy of climber Tom Frost.

Born in Los Angeles in 1936, Frost was the embodiment of a certain kind of mid-20th-century California blue blood—raised in Orange County, a teenage champion sailboat-racer out of Newport Harbor Yacht Club, a mechanical engineering major at Stanford, and hired by the aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas in the late 1950s, during California’s aviation boom. Frost’s initial attraction to mountaineering was likewise typical of the postwar generation in California, people who defined themselves less through work than through outdoor adventure.

Even as the first California surfers ventured into big waves off the North Shore of Oahu, Frost and others, including Chouinard, looked up at the great Yosemite cliffs and dreamed of climbing them. Robbins, a friend of Frost’s, made the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome in 1957, and another friend, Warren Harding, claimed the first ascent of El Capitan, via the Nose route, in a 45-day siege spread over 18 months, ending in 1958. In 1960, Frost joined Robbins and two others in making the second ascent of the Nose, in a continuous push of seven days, lightning fast for that era. A year later, in 1961, Frost, Robbins, and another friend, Chuck Pratt, established an entirely new route on El Capitan called the Salathé Wall—precursor to the so-called Freerider route that Alex Honnold climbed alone without a rope in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, and still considered perhaps the greatest pure rock climb on earth. Soon after, Frost, Robbins, Pratt, and Chouinard climbed the fearsome North America Wall portion of El Capitan in a single 10-day push from the ground to complete the most technically advanced rock climb ever done at the time.

Along the way, Frost used his engineering background to help Chouinard transform mountaineering equipment worldwide. They started by forging the finest iron pitons ever made, far superior to anything used in Europe. Later, when they realized that hammering pitons into rock left permanent scars on a cliff, Frost and Chouinard innovated small chunks of steel attached to loops of wire cable that could be inserted into cracks in the stone and connected to ropes via carabiners, protecting climbers against falls, then removed without a trace. Eventually, the pair went into business together, manufacturing the world’s finest ice axes, crampons, pitons, and other climbing hardware.

Frost, Chouinard, and Robbins also established cultural norms aimed at minimizing the use of drills to place permanent steel protection bolts in cliffs and venerating ascents done in the purest possible style—with the least harm to the rock and the highest level of daring and risk. These norms still define the game of climbing around adventure and self-discovery, and they led directly to Honnold’s unroped solo of El Cap.

Royal Robbins (left) and T.M. Herbert assess gear choices in Camp 4 in preparation for their second ascent attempt of Salathé Wall, in September 1962.
Royal Robbins (left) and T.M. Herbert assess gear choices in Camp 4 in preparation for their second ascent attempt of Salathé Wall, in September 1962.

Life intervened for Frost, as it does for all of us. He parted ways with Chouinard in 1975, moved to Colorado, and started a family. The world that Frost helped create in Camp 4, however, kept right on growing. Throughout the 1970s, a new crew of young climbers known as the Stonemasters pushed the limits of technical difficulty beyond anything Frost’s generation had thought possible. The Stonemasters also started Yosemite Search and Rescue, a storied outfit that continues to innovate high-angle rescue techniques employed by mountain-safety teams all over the world. Camp 4 also became one of mountaineering’s great cultural meccas, a place where every ambitious climber had to do their time and where the cumulative history and lore—plus the near-constant presence of climbing celebrities—created a feeling of almost overdetermined significance.

During that time, though, something less positive also visited Camp 4. A hard-partying, cheap-living, unwashed vibe took root and turned rangers against the climbing culture. Too many climbers overstayed camping limits, lived illegally in nearby caves, and fed themselves by waiting for tourists to vacate cafeteria tables and then swooping in for the leftovers. Law enforcement rangers, many of whom had zero interest in climbing—and zero knowledge of Yosemite’s significance to mountaineers worldwide—came to see climbers as little more than pests to be eradicated.

For that reason, Frost wasn’t entirely surprised when he learned that the National Park Service, during its planning for new construction at Camp 4, had already filed paperwork with the National Register of Historic Places asserting that Camp 4 had no cultural significance whatsoever, was favored mostly by bohemian outlaw types likely to be abandoned by their girlfriends, and could therefore be sacrificed to new hotel rooms and employee housing.

Carl Sigwart (left) and Martin Wildauer, visiting from Austria, relax at Camp 4 in July 2019.
Carl Sigwart (left) and Martin Wildauer, visiting from Austria, relax at Camp 4 in July 2019.

My father grew up in Southern California when Frost did, but he channeled his yearnings for purpose into civil rights law in the South and, later, poverty law in Washington, D.C. After I was born, Dad moved to Berkeley and raised a family. To pay the bills, he left social justice work for private practice—personal injury, environmental law. Dad loved the intellectual combat of litigation, but never stopped aching for a life less ordinary. He found it in the Sierra—backpacking with Mom and climbing with his brother and, when I got old enough, me. The great walls of Yosemite quickly became the consuming passion of my father’s middle years, deliverance for an adventure-craving spirit and a melancholy Irish soul. Ascents of Half Dome and El Capitan brought joyous escape from self-doubt and financial pressure—an existence less focused on money and status—while Camp 4 became a sanctuary where even a middle-aged lawyer could live in the dirt and while away days among like-minded eccentrics of every nationality pursuing the same odd form of sanity.

So when Frost hired my father, Dad took it as a rare opportunity to fight the good fight on behalf of his chosen tribe. Other climbers and organizations had already initiated legal action against the National Park Service, largely on environmental grounds. Dad drove to the valley, looked around, and realized that even winning a lawsuit wouldn’t necessarily save Camp 4. All it would accomplish would be to stall construction and force the Park Service into a conversation with stakeholders, including climbers. If that conversation turned acrimonious, and the Park Service saw climbers as enemies, Camp 4 would almost certainly be destroyed anyway. Frost decided they should meet in person with the director of the National Park Service for the Pacific West region, John Reynolds. Frost, Robbins, Chouinard, and other veteran climbers told Reynolds and a group of senior Yosemite officials about Camp 4’s importance. Reynolds countered that he was under immense pressure to restore park facilities destroyed by the flood. Put another way: Sorry, guys, I don’t think I can help you.

Frost then said to Reynolds, “Well, we are going to sue you, because we love you, and there are no good guys and no bad guys here. We were all kids in the park at the same time. We love this valley, you guys love the valley, you devoted your life to it, you’re just wrong and you’ve gotten way off course here, and we’re going to sue you because it will help take the pressure off your back by stopping things, so that we can really talk about this and you can get back on course. You are lost, and we are going to help you.”

Dad knew the case would be decided by Judge Charles Breyer in the federal district court in San Francisco without a jury or witnesses. It was hard to imagine Breyer deciding that a dirty little campground was worth his time, so Dad enlisted every major player in the history of Yosemite to join as a coplaintiff, allowing Dad to include their testimony—and the entire history of Camp 4 and of California mountaineering more broadly—in his initial filing. He also consulted a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Architecture who specialized in sacred spaces and who had worked on preserving the character of a Chesapeake Bay fishing village by arguing that its post office and town square were the center of community life and therefore could not be redeveloped. The professor helped articulate the importance of Camp 4 as a place where for generations climbers had gathered to share the stories and ideas that now form the great lore of Yosemite climbing. Finally, Dad got the historian and California state librarian Kevin Starr to write that mountaineering had been central to the development of the state’s culture as far back as John Muir, and that Camp 4 had been the undisputed center of California mountaineering.

All this provided Judge Breyer with the opportunity for a rare treat. He took a day off work to drive to Yosemite and see Camp 4 for himself.

With Breyer still undecided, Park Service officials showed no sign of backing down, so Frost and Dad turned their attention back to the National Register of Historic Places, a subagency of the Park Service. Dad had now learned enough about the relevant law to worry that Frost’s initial application hadn’t hit the right legal notes. It wouldn’t make sense for Frost to send additional materials, so they got the American Alpine Club to agree to declare itself a stakeholder and submit a supplemental application. Dad then spent weeks writing that application, a comprehensive 43-page history of Yosemite climbing and analysis of the role Camp 4 played in its living culture. To wit:

There are historic places throughout the United States that few visit, despite either the plaques that mark their location or governmental efforts to educate the public regarding their importance. Camp 4 is not one of them. No plaque marks its location. No tourist bureau or public agency touts it. Yet, the people come. They come year after year, decade after decade. One generation replaces another in the pilgrimage. They come from states as far away as Alaska and New York; from countries as far away as China and the Czech Republic. They repeat the historical rituals of the past: climbing on the ancient boulders, gathering around campfires with new climbing partners, preparing to climb the old routes, and dreaming about creating the future. This is not history as a dust bin. It is history as a force that shapes a living, vibrant present.

Camp 4 is such a simple setting: forested space, boulders, campsites, sun in the morning, views across the Valley, closeness to the easy Swan’s Slab, and closeness to the ever challenging El Capitan. The simplicity itself is part of Camp 4’s evocative force. Climbers, by their very nature, seek a direct, intense interaction with nature. For them, the spareness of the campground is far more evocative than any of the more luxurious lodgings available in the Valley.

While simplicity matters, it alone would not produce the deep feelings that Camp 4 evokes. In the opinion of this supplementary application’s author, it was Steve Roper, in his book Camp 4, who best captured how and why Camp 4 reverberates with historic feelings and associations. He, therefore, should have the last word. In talking about the young Americans who first came to Camp 4 after World War II, and who turned it into the center of world rock climbing, Roper said: “These…rebellious eccentrics…were the most gifted rock climbers in the world, and I hope I evoked their spirit and their times.”

Climber Tom Frost (left) and attorney Richard Duane (center) with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt at a ceremony placing Camp 4 on the National Register of Historic Places on February 21, 2003.
Climber Tom Frost (left) and attorney Richard Duane (center) with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt at a ceremony placing Camp 4 on the National Register of Historic Places on February 21, 2003.

They first took this new application to the California office of the National Register, only to find that officials there were in agreement with those in Yosemite who had long since declared Camp 4 a nuisance. Frost then hand-delivered the application to the Denver office. Local officials gave him the clear impression that he didn’t have a prayer.

Months passed without a word. Dad sensed that the National Register would rule against him. He learned that in close cases, officials in the national office sometimes deferred to those in the relevant park. So he and Frost tried yet another strategy, again with help from the American Alpine Club: they tapped international climbing networks for thousands of letters about what Camp 4 meant to people, all sent directly to Reynolds. Australians, Japanese, Italians, Venezuelans—they buried Reynolds in letters arguing that Camp 4 was one of the three most important climbing base camps on earth, alongside those at Mount Everest and in the Alps at Chamonix.

In September 1998, with Judge Breyer still undecided and Park Service plans still calling for construction, my father and mother drove to Wyoming for a climbing trip in the Wind River Range. Dad didn’t own a mobile phone, but he was driving back through Yosemite when he saw a pay phone. He stopped the car, stepped into the booth, and dialed his office. His secretary told him that Camp 4 was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Several years later, it would be permanently added to the register, saving it forever. But on that day, Dad hung up the phone, told Mom, then walked across the highway into a meadow and kissed a boulder.

Daniel Duane writes about climbing, surfing, cooking, and other pursuits. He is the author of six books and served as the story editor for an upcoming documentary about Tom Frost.

Daniel Duane writes about climbing, surfing, cooking, and other pursuits.
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